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Fresh sounds in Myanmar
Publication Date : 10-07-2012
The Myanmar bandwagon is filling up fast as Westerners rush in with offers to buy and products to sell. Most of the attention is directed at what's coming out of the country--mainly Aung San Suu Kyi on her closely watched world tour, but also the Burmese music that percolated away all those decades and yet was rarely heard abroad.
In return, the foreigners are sending in old-time British pop star Engelbert Humperdinck, who'll be in Yangon tomorrow crooning his hits of the 1960s. Humperdinck's detractors might see this as a reinstatement of cruel sanctions, but he ought to sell out in a city keen to see what it's been missing.
More importantly, the West wants to see what it's been missing, beyond the occasional jingles of the singing-dancing group Me N Ma Girls.
By all accounts, the censors have taken the padlocks off the country's riskier independent musicians, allowing them to express themselves more openly than ever. Myanmar's music underground is now visible on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
One such band, Side Effect, has its debut album "Rainy Night Dreams", out this year, in the iTunes store and at Amazon and Spotify. The band was invited to perform at the Hello Asean music festival in Bali, Indonesia, last November - its first trip outside the homeland and a good chance for its members to compare indie credentials with groups from across Southeast Asia.
Formed in 2004, Side Effect is comprised of singer-guitarist Darko C, guitarist-bassist Jozeff K and drummer-singer Tser Htoo. They call their music "indie/punk rock".
For Darko the name Side Effect - suggested by a friend - evokes the way older Burmese people treat the younger generation, imposing rules and limitations.
"The art here has to be polite and gentle," he tells The Nation at his Yangon apartment amid beautiful paintings by his wife. "They don't accept the furious side of art." And that rejection is bound to have a "side effect", Darko explains.
Darko first heard the growl of punk music on a record by the American grunge specialists Nirvana. "I felt I could play the same way," he says. Soon after that, he felt the genre's full impact while listening the track "Last Night" by the Strokes, another US band.
"I stumbled on the music video. That song changed my life. It was completely different to what we'd been listening to. It was like waking up!"
A decade ago it was extremely difficult to find music they could relate to. Darko would save up his lunch money to send away for a cassette by a foreign artist and wait a week or more to get it.
He writes and produces Side Effect's tunes, drawing inspiration from everyday life and the current shifts in Myanmar. "Change" is about the sanctions slammed on Myanmar by the West to try and force reforms.
The band has no record label to lean on for support and in fact has a modest global reputation for begging for donations online. One such appeal, carried on IndieGoGo.com, said they needed US$5,999 (190,000 baht), "which sounds like a lot, but unfortunately the exchange rate is really shitty right now and our needs add up pretty fast".
Among the "needs" listed were fresh gigs ("we might have the opportunity to open for the Handsome Furs on their upcoming Asia tour"), and cash for pressing and distributing the first album and "a drum set for Tser Htoo".
Canadian band Handsome Furs played in Yangon in 2010 and gave Side Effect a hearty endorsement. Its song "Serve the People", addressing Myanmar and dedicated to Side Effect, was adopted by the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Donations did come in for Side Effect via PayPal, but ironically they couldn't translate them into cash because of the sanctions, which in part barred US firms from doing any business in Myanmar. IndieGoGo.com also felt compelled to shut down its fund-raising for Side Effect because of the sanctions.
Among the lyrics to "Change": "Sanctions may slow us down, but you will never understand our broken dreams."
Music that isn't cheerful mainstream pop remains a hard sell in Myanmar, says Darko. "People say you can't do this because first you have to do the kind of music that everyone loves. Once they become your fans, then you can do whatever you want."
The few fans that the band does have gather at Darko's studio to hear them perform. Not even Yangon, the country's biggest city and former capital, has many live concerts, and a Side Effect gig on a proper stage would be an absolute rarity.
Nor can any Myanmarese indie bands survive on ticket or album sales. Darko earns a living editing and producing for other musicians.
He is nevertheless optimistic that their patience will soon pay dividends. "We hope to have a concert in Myanmar soon as well as getting on more stages abroad in the future."